Coin of Roman Emperor Nero discovered by the Mount Zion Project
A rare gold coin depicting Roman emperor Nero was unearthed in archaeological excavations just outside the Old City of Jerusalem in Israel. The coin was found in the excavations of the Mount Zion Project, codirected by Shimon Gibson, Visiting Professor of Archaeology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and James Tabor, Professor of Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity at UNC-Charlotte. This Nero coin is especially significant because it was discovered on a scientific excavation, so its findspot is clear.
The coin, called an aureus—the standard gold coin in ancient Rome, bears on its obverse side (see image above) a portrait of Nero and an inscription reading “NERO CAESAR AVG IMP” (Nero Caesar Augustus Imperator). Nero was Roman emperor from 54 to 68 C.E. On the Nero coin’s reverse side (see example below) appear an oak wreath surrounding the letters “EX S C” (Ex Senatus Consulto—“by order of the Senate”) as well as the inscription “PONTIF MAX TR P III” (Pontifex Maximus Tribunicia Potestas III).1
“Pontifex Maximus means ‘greatest priest,’ and it was the most important religious position in Rome,” explained Jane Sancinito, a Ph.D. candidate in Ancient History at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in Roman imperial and Byzantine numismatics, in an email to Bible History Daily. “The Tribunicia Potestas, or tribunician power, was an important legal power first given to Augustus. The legend says this is the third (III) year in a row that Nero held this power and thus provides us with the date. Nero became emperor in 54 C.E., so three years later is 56/57 C.E., depending on the month.” (Scroll down or click here to read Sancinito’s comprehensive analysis of this coin type.)
Numismatist David Jacobson, who studied the Nero coin on behalf of the Mount Zion Project, agrees that the aureus was struck in 56/57 C.E.
“The coin is exceptional, because this is the first time that a coin of this kind has turned up in Jerusalem in a scientific dig,” said dig codirector Shimon Gibson in a UNC-Charlotte press release. “Coins of this type are usually only found in private collections, where we don’t have clear evidence as to place of origin.”
The Nero coin was excavated from rubble near the remains of first-century C.E. villas where members of the Jewish priestly caste may have lived. The Mount Zion Project has been investigating these villas for the last several years.
“The coin probably came from one of the rich 2,000-year-old Jewish dwellings which the UNC-Charlotte team have been uncovering at the site,” said Gibson. “These belonged to the priestly and aristocratic quarter located in the Upper City of Jerusalem. Finds include the well-preserved rooms of a very large mansion, a Jewish ritual pool (mikveh) and a bathroom, both with their ceilings intact.”
Nero was the fifth emperor of the Roman Empire and the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Nero is known in a popular saying for having fiddled while Rome burned in 64 C.E.
“He definitely played the cithara, but the saying is a modern one,” explained Dr. Jennifer Gerrish, Assistant Professor of Classics at the College of Charleston. “According to ancient Roman historian Tacitus, though, Nero was rumored to have sung about the destruction of Troy during the fire.”
“When people blamed him for the fire, because it conveniently burned down the districts where he had hoped to build a palace, he scapegoated the Christians and tortured them,” Gerrish added.
While there is no indication that Nero visited Jerusalem during his reign, the Nero coin discovered by the Mount Zion Project is reflective of the presence of the Romans—at this time, Judea was a Roman province.
“The coin was minted in Rome (there were only two mints in the empire at this time, one at Rome and the other at Lyons) and therefore traveled a long way to reach its final deposit,” said numismatist Jane Sancinito. “Coins, and especially gold coins, entered circulation primarily as military pay, so it likely changed hands several times before it came to a priestly villa in Jerusalem.”
A decade after the Nero coin was struck, in 66 C.E., the First Jewish Revolt broke out in Judea. In 67, Nero dispatched a general by the name of Vespasian (who would subsequently become emperor in 69) to quell the uprising. The revolt concluded in 70 with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple.
Learn more about ancient coins in “Roman Emperor Nerva’s Reform of the Jewish Tax” by Nathan T. Elkins.
1. This coin type typically bears the legend “PONTIF MAX TR P III P P”; “P P” is an abbreviation for Pater Patriae, or “father of the country,” an honorific title given to emperors. The UNC-Charlotte press release, however, does not include “P P” in the legend of the coin found by the Mount Zion Project, and an image of the coin’s reverse side has not been made available. Whether “P P” appears on this Nero coin from Jerusalem has not yet been confirmed by the directors of the project.
Below, read numismatist Jane Sancinito’s analysis of the Nero coin discovered in the excavations of the Mount Zion Project in Jerusalem. Sancinito, who has not seen the Nero coin in person, draws her observations from a published image of the coin as well as her knowledge of this coin series.—Ed.
The obverse (the portrait side) of the coin shows a portrait of the Roman emperor Nero (see image at right). This in itself is interesting. Nero is the first emperor to visibly age over time in his portraits, and here he is a young man. Nero became emperor at just 17 years old, and at the time this coin was struck, he was only 19 or 20. His portrait style changed to reflect his age and to present a more independent style, rather than following the artistic principles of Augustus Caesar, over time. The legend reads “NERO CAESAR AVG IMP,” or Nero Caesar Augustus Imperator, or general. This was Nero’s official title, though his full name also included the name Claudius, for his adoptive father, and Germanicus, for his maternal grandfather.
The reverse of the coin lacks an elaborate design, but it is a traditional one (see example below). The oak wreath is an important symbol in Roman culture. Known as the corona civica, or civic crown, the wreath was originally a military honor given to a Roman who had saved the life of a citizen in battle by killing an enemy of the state. In the empire, this symbol was gradually reserved for the emperor, who “saved lives” primarily by maintaining peace. The legend in the center of the wreath, EX S C, expanded to Ex Senatus Consulto, means “by order of the Senate.” The wreath was probably an honor given to Nero by senatorial decree, though it is sometimes argued that precious metal coins with this inscription come from a gift of metal bullion from the Senate.
The external legend should read “PONTIF MAX TR P III P P” (see footnote above). These abbreviations are very common on Roman coins, and they spell out Pontifex Maximus Tribunicia Potestas III Pater Patriae. These represent three important titles or honors that Nero held, as well as tell us the date of the coin, 56 or 57 C.E. Pontifex Maximus means “greatest priest,” and it was the most important religious position in Rome. The Pontifex Maximus controlled the Roman calendar, administered several types of what we would call private law, particularly related to burials and wills, and also was responsible for regulating public morality. The Tribunicia Potestas, or tribunician power, was an important legal power first given to Emperor Augustus. With this power, the emperor could veto legislation, convene the Senate, and his own body was considered sacrosanct, which meant that if anyone attempted to harm him, they would immediately be labeled an enemy of the state who could be killed on sight. The legend says this is the third (III) year in a row that Nero held this power, and thus provides us with the date. Nero became emperor in 54 C.E., so three years later is 56/57 C.E., depending on the month. Augustus used the same system to count the years of his “reign,” though he never called it such. Finally, Pater Patriae, or father of the country, was a formal title to honor the emperor. It did not come with powers as such, but it shaped the way the emperor was viewed by the people. The emperor was supposed to be paternal, protective, of the Roman state, and though the “P P” seems highly formulaic to a modern reader, it was a small reminder of the role and responsibility that the emperor had.
All told, this is a rare and interesting coin, particularly to come out of an excavation in Jerusalem. It was minted in Rome (there were only two mints in the empire at this time, one at Rome and the other at Lyons) and therefore traveled a long way to reach its final deposit. It is very rare to find gold coins in excavation, for the simple reason that people didn’t tend to lose gold coins, or if they did, they searched until they found them again. Gold coins are also highly visible, so if it got dropped somewhere, someone else was likely to see it and pick it up.
The coin was minted in 56/57 C.E., but was probably put into the ground some years after that. Coins, and especially gold coins, entered circulation primarily as military pay, so it likely changed hands several times before it came to a priestly villa in Jerusalem. It would be surprising, and indeed unlikely, that the coin could travel so far in only one year. Gold coins also tended to circulate slowly, since they were only spent on large purchases, of the kind not made on a daily basis. The coin was a substantial amount of wealth, and it will be interesting to see what other coins are found in the complex to judge how wealthy the owners of these buildings were and to what extent they were part of a monetized (as opposed to a credit or barter) economy.
Jane Sancinito is a Ph.D. candidate in Ancient History at the University of Pennsylvania writing a dissertation on merchants in the later Roman Empire. She has studied numismatics at Oxford, Princeton and Penn, as well as at the American Numismatic Society and at the Belgian School at Athens. She specializes in Roman imperial and Byzantine numismatics and most particularly in Roman Syria.
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